Thank you, Mr. Chairman and committee members.
It's a pleasure for me to be here this morning to discuss Bill C-265, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (qualification for and entitlement to benefits). I haven't prepared a brief because I feel I know the employment insurance question well enough to be able to discuss it for the next 10 minutes.
I would like to begin by saying that I'm proud that Parliament has voted to refer the bill I've introduced to our committee so that we can discuss it and see whether we can improve it.
In 1986, the Auditor General made some recommendations to Brian Mulroney's Conservative government. He recommended that the employment insurance funds be paid into the Consolidated Revenue Fund. In 1988, after the funds were paid into the Consolidated Revenue Fund, the government realized that the fund was becoming a cash cow. These funds had virtually become a tax. It saw the funds being paid into the Consolidated Revenue Fund and thought that, if it amended employment insurance and proceeded with cuts, it could make gains and apply those to the debt and balance the budget. That is precisely what occurred.
Mr. Chairman, I remember that, on July 31, 1989, L'Acadie Nouvelle reported that my predecessor, Doug Young, had asked all New Brunswickers to fight hard against the change made by the government because it would be a disaster for New Brunswick. At the time, he was speaking on behalf of New Brunswick, since he was only an ordinary opposition member. Around February 1993, when the opposition leader was the Honourable Jean Chrétien, a letter was sent to a group of women from Mouvement Action Chômage, in the Rivière-du-Loup region, stating that the government was punishing workers by making the cuts, that unemployment insurance was not the problem, but rather that the economic problem had to be solved.
Then, in the fall of 1993, the Liberals came to power and continued making changes to employment insurance. I'm not tossing balls around and making everyone angry. I don't want to prevent you from voting in favour of the bill. I'm setting out the actual facts that have been made public.
Once the changes were started, could we blame senior officials for getting it into their heads that unemployment insurance benefits had to be cut because giving people money made them indolent and lazy? After the Liberals came to power, an article in the Globe and Mail triggered comments in the Hamilton region. In that article, Doug Young was reported as saying that people from the Atlantic region were a lot of lazy and indolent people and that was why they wanted employment insurance benefits, but that he was going to change matters. He thought that the Globe and Mail wasn't distributed in the Atlantic region. It was in 1997—and Mr. Cuzner no doubt remembers this—that we realized that Atlantic workers had really reacted to those remarks.
People wonder why Yvon Godin wants to be so generous by lowering the number of hours required to 360, and think that makes no sense. You have to remember that, in those years, a person had to work 15 hours a week and accumulate 150 hours. You could say that unemployment insurance was generous, because it wasn't as hard to qualify: you had to work 15 hours a week and accumulate 150 hours. The 15 hours a week applied to male and female workers, especially female workers. A number of women worked 20 hours a week. Not everyone worked 40 hours a week. The 150 hours equalled about 10 weeks of work.
In the Atlantic provinces, we are lucky to live beside the Atlantic Ocean. We are lucky to live by the sea, which enables us to create a fishing economy. We also have forests. We could talk about this for a long time, since we're losing it as a result of the closure of the paper mills. I've said this many times in the House, colleagues: the Bay of Chaleur freezes along the coast in winter. In addition, the government imposes quotas.
It isn't employees who decide whether or not they can work year-round; it's government regulations. There are quotas.
For example, with regard to the crab industry, you can catch approximately 26,000 tonnes of crab. The fishery is over in less than six weeks. What do people do then? No one ever decides on Friday morning that he won't go to work on Monday and thus have his wages cut in half. I don't think so. I've never seen anyone from the Atlantic who is indolent, lazy and doesn't want to work.
You need only look at the number of people taking a plane and going to work for the oil industry in the west. These people like to work and work hard, but our industries are seasonal.
Statistics Canada has conducted some studies. The government argues that 85% of people eligible for employment insurance are receiving it. That's what the government says. The government today takes the same line as the previous Liberal government. It's senior official speak.
In the first report published following the major changes made to the employment insurance system in 1996, it was said that only 42% of people who contributed to employment insurance could receive benefits. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I believe that's what was written in the first report. That hit hard, and everyone said it made no sense. So they took a different tack and said that 85% of people eligible for employment insurance were receiving it.
The question was asked here in committee meetings. I myself was present when questions were put to officials from Human Resources and Social Development Canada. The question was clear.
People are contributing to employment insurance, but don't qualify for it because they haven't managed to accumulate 910 hours of work, or 840 hours of work in certain regions. It takes 910 hours of work to qualify for employment insurance the first time. University students contribute to employment insurance, but don't qualify for it because they don't have enough hours of work. There are also all those people who work part time in Canada and who can't accumulate 910 hours of work during the year.
Here's another example. In 1999, Minister Pettigrew said that the problem only affected the Atlantic provinces, that it didn't affect the rest of Canada. I said to myself that I should go and visit the rest of Canada, and I did a national tour. I also sent out copies of my tour report. I visited all the provinces of Canada. I went to 22 regions, I attended some 53 public meetings, and I wrote a report.
I met one lady from Nanaimo who had been in a coma for 10 days. When she came out of the coma, she went home. She wanted to receive health insurance and employment insurance, but she was short two hours of work. In three years of work, she had never been able to accumulate the required 700 hours of work. She had accumulated 698 hours of work. So she was only two hours short of being eligible for employment insurance. The 420 hours required, or more depending on the region, represent a number that is too high for newcomers, because of the industry they work for, not because they leave their jobs in order to go home.
The act is clear: if a person voluntarily leaves his employment, he does not qualify for employment insurance. In that case, the person doesn't leave his job; it's the employer that says that it can't offer him employment because it has reached its crab and lobster quotas, that the lobster fishery is over, and so on. In Prince Edward Island last year and the year before, there weren't enough people to work in the fishing industry. Workers even came from Russia to work when the unemployment rate was 20%. People have gotten to the point where they prefer to live on welfare because, that way, they feel better treated. When you've gotten to that point, I think there's a real problem.
Here in Ottawa, when we talk to our colleagues about the employment insurance problem, some suggest that people affected should move out west, where there's enough work. Excuse me, but we don't want to move the entire Atlantic region and northern Ontario out west. There are major industries, including fishing and forestry, in Vancouver as well, where I went. Some employers in major industries should have a system that can help them.
The qualification requirement must be lowered to 360 hours to give everyone an equal opportunity. If someone loses his job, whether it be in Rivière-du-Loup, Timmins, Nanaimo or Fort McMurray, he's still an individual who has lost his job. Employment insurance should be used to compensate for that loss of employment by supporting the families of those individuals until they find another job. Everyone should have equal access to this system, which is funded by them, not by the government. It is employers and employees who contribute to the system. The system should therefore enable those individuals to access their own insurance system rather than make it so that the funds are diverted to pay down the debt and to achieve a zero deficit. We've seen that the $7 billion surpluses each year have been diverted from the Employment Insurance Fund for that purpose. It's really through this fund that the government has paid down its debt and balanced its budgets. The fund should enable the most vulnerable citizens to access this program, which they themselves fund.
In addition, we should focus on the best 12 weeks of the year. The employment insurance program already collects a percentage on these people's wages. If they work for minimum wage or $9 or $10 an hour, telling them that they will only receive 55% of their earnings if they don't look for a job is one way of urging them to look for one. I'd like the percentage to be 66%, but it's currently 55%. These people are doubly penalized under the divisor of 14 policy, which only applies to certain places. But, in reality, who are we punishing? We're punishing the family, man, woman and children. It's not for no reason that 1.4 million children are hungry in Canada. In my opinion, the changes made to the employment insurance system by successive governments have really caused this problem.
I still sincerely believe that all Canadians are stalwart individuals. If we attack the economic problems and create employment, people will be proud to get up on Monday morning to go to work. They will go home at night with a paycheque that they have honestly earned. It is the Government of Canada, not the workers, that has come to depend on the employment insurance system to pay down its debt. These are the two changes that I have requested in the context of this bill. I am prepared to answer your questions.